The Best You've Never Heard
On January 10th, 2010 Epic Records and Sony Music put out the first album of new Michael Jackson material since the singers untimely death the previous summer. It was, in fact, the first album of completely original material since 2001's Invincible. To say expectations were high among fans would be an understatement. However the album was marred with controversy when fans, friends, and Jackson family members noticed that some of the tracks, dubbed "The Cascio Tracks", did not sound like Michael Jackson. Things have never been the same since.
So when the announcement was made on March 31, 2014, that Sony Music would be putting out a brand new album of original Michael Jackson material you can imagine the reaction from fans was mixed. I myself was both excited and hesitant; what would we be getting this time around? What things would they screw up this time? We had been expecting new material ever since Sony had used the unreleased track "Slave to the Rhythm" in a series of advertisements for their new phone, and I publicly questioned at the time why an ad campaign wouldn't be tied to the release of a new album. Already things seemed to be going in the wrong direction.
Thankfully, as more and more information about the new album started to be uncovered my excitement grew. Sony was taking a much more careful approach this time around having a singular executive oversee the album (Epic Records Chairman and C.E.O. L.A. Reid), and a singular producer (Timbaland) overseeing the majority of the production. They quite wisely opted to release a deluxe version of the album that included all the songs in their original state, just as Jackson left them, in an effort to appease the die hard fans. And when they finally dropped the first single (or singles, since there were two versions released simultaneously), and it was actually incredibly strong I found myself even more excited than before.
The wait is finally over. The best you've never heard has arrived. So, how does it hold up?
I think perhaps what surprised me the most was how much I enjoyed the re-worked versions of songs I was never particularly wild about in the first place. Timbaland and his co-producers have managed to take tracks that I always considered to be low-caliber b-side material and turn them into some really enjoyable, totally danceable tracks. Un-surprisingly of course, the tracks I did enjoy the originals of suffer the most, but not always for the reasons you might expect.
Take for example, "A Place With No Name". A snippet of the track leaked shortly after Jackson's death in 2009 and instantly there was buzz surrounding the track and it's reworking of America's "A Horse with No Name". This new 2014 versions strips that away almost completely, to the detriment of the track. Jackson is clearly singing a melody line that is tied to that original source material, and yet all the instrumentation is at odds with it, including an updated bass-line that's reminiscent of "Leave me Alone". It's as if in their quests to put their own personal touch on the tracks the producers have sometimes gone to far; no longer guided by the demo, and taking away from the essence of the original track. After multiple subsequent listens the track has grown on me, especially that killer bass line but I still feel that the chorus deviates too far from the original and feels out of place.
I also question the use of Timbaland as the lead producer for the album. This is, of course, nothing more than personal bias as I've never been wild about Timberland and his production. He has a unique sound, but it's not a sound I'm a huge fan of and it immediately feels dated to me. But the biggest issue is in the fact that some of these tracks start to sound like Timbaland songs and not Michael Jackson ones, and that is ultimately a problem. If it were up to me I'd have had Pharrell Williams (who composed multiple tracks for Jackson which he ultimately declined to use, and eventually wound up being recorded by Justin Timberlake) or Bruno Mars and his production team, The Smeezingtons, produce the album. Sure, that may seem like an obvious choice, especially considering how hot they are right now, but I consider their music to be the closest to the essence of Jackson's music that it would have been a perfect fit.
Thankfully all is not lost, because Sony quite wisely opted to include the "original" versions of all the tracks on the deluxe edition of the album. This is a brilliant move because it appeases the fans who want to hear the songs in the state they were in where Jackson left them, while also creating a standard album that feels at home on record store shelves in 2014. While I personally think everyone should opt to purchase the deluxe version of the album, for the casual listener the standard edition will do them just fine; after all they won't know the history and evolution of the tracks so they'll have nothing to compare to.
And there's actually some really great surprises in store for the fans when they listen to their deluxe edition. Perhaps the first major criticism the album received upon its announcement was the fact that Sony and The Estate had opted to include 6 tracks that had leaked in the past and were among the collection of the die-hard fans. To us it seemed as though 80% of the album would be material we had heard before. Turns out that's not entirely true. Prior to the release I had speculated that perhaps the "original versions" would be the demo tracks in an earlier/later stage of completion compared to the leaked versions. Sure enough this is the case. The Estate opted to include the original Dangerous era demo of "Slave to the Rhythm" rather than the more common (and in my mind superior) Tricky Stewart remix from 2010. "Do You Know Where Your Children Are" and "Blue Gangsta" both appear to be alternate mixes compared to the versions leaked in 2010, the former being an almost completely different arrangement to the leaked versions, and the later containing slightly more refined and considered instrumentation compared to the leaked mix.
Of course perhaps the most fascinating part of the deluxe version is getting to hear how very dated/retro sounding tracks such as Chicago (aka She's Loving Me), Loving You, and Slave to the Rhythm can be transformed into modern R&B/Pop hits with some new instrumentation and arrangements. While credit has to be given to the production team for managing this, ultimately this speaks to Jackson's genius as a writer, especially when you hear tracks such as Xscape whose original mix still sounds just as fresh today as it did when it leaked in 2002.
For many fans there's a question as to whether or not Jackson would have approved of the release of the album. The short answer is no; Jackson was a known perfectionist and it's safe to say that if these songs weren't finished at the time of his death, then he didn't consider them to be in shape for the public to hear them. In fact, when the title track "Xscape" leaked in 2002 Jackson was so furious he immediately halted production on the track. That said, L.A. Reid, chairman and C.E.O. of Epic Records, did explain his process in a recent cover story in Billboard magazine:
From all this material, Reid and longtime Sony A&R man John Doelp had a clear target. They wanted to find songs, says Reid, that "Michael sang beginning to end multiple times, multiple tracks, because that was the only indication that I could find that spoke to Michael's love to the songs."
Going into the vaults, Branca and Karen Langford — who knows what's in the archive warehouses as well as anyone — selected 24 possibilities that met Reid and Doelp's specifications. They in turn narrowed the field to 20, which were edited down to about 14. Eight will be on "Xscape," though several more were prepared (a deluxe edition will also feature the original tracks).
This means the tracks we're hearing on Xscape were clearly important enough to Jackson to keep working on them, and while he might not have found his sweet spot at the time of his passing, it wasn't for a lack of trying. And while I'm not sure that he'd love the direction the producers took which each and every one of the tracks I'm sure he'd applaud them for helping bring them to life again. Because ultimately that is what this album is doing, bringing Jackson's music back to life. It may not be considered part of the "canon", and certainly isn't as strong as Thriller or Off the Wall, but it is a fascinating experiment that once again brings Jackson's music to the forefront of popular culture.
The other question you might ask yourself is which version of the album should you pick? For the truly casual listener the standard edition is probably fine. Certainly any teenager who doesn't know Billie Jean from a whole in the ground will be fine with it. But for an extra couple of bucks you get all the original demos, the Justin Timberlake duet, and a making of DVD. You'll get to experience both the updated versions of songs and the original versions as Jackson left them, and decide for yourself which versions you prefer, as well as get that ever so candid glimpse into the artistry of a true genius.